Traffic Accidents #1 Cause of Death for U.S. Citizens Abroad

The first time I tried to ride a motorbike “sidesaddle,” I almost fell off. Two months later, and I was whizzing around S.E. Asia on the back of motorbikes, legs to one side, like I’d been doing it my whole life. No helmet. Random driver. I loved the surprise expressed by locals when they saw me in my skirt, riding along sideways like it was nothing. I knew it was dumb, but everyone else was doing it so I figured it was okay. But my instinct influenced me just enough to keep me from bragging to my mother, who would not have been impressed.

Travelers tend to feel invincible when abroad. I know I performed stunts I would never do back home, like riding on the edge of an open truck bed for four hours on a dirt road in Cambodia. When I tried to pull the same trick in Seattle (across a parking lot, mind you) my parents refused to drive one more foot until I was back in the cab.

In retrospect, maybe I was lucky I was never in an accident. I certainly witnessed a few. A friend in the Peace Corps was not allowed to ride motorbikes because, he said, motorbike accidents are the largest cause of Peace Corps deaths. USA today reports that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for traveling Americans. The article cites many reasons, including substandard roads, poor or nonexistent signs, and lax law enforcement. And accidents are not isolated to developing countries, either. About 15% of traveler fatalities occur in high-income countries.

Personally, I found riding sidesaddle on the back of a motorbike much easier than trying to drive on the left side of the road in Ireland. But maybe next time I’m in Asia I’ll forgo the motorbike in favor of a taxicab — and a seatbelt.